Vegan Mofo might be over, but I will continue to play with some of the themes. So it’s now back to the grind with “Work WIth It Wednesday.” I suppose it has a double meaning for me, since now it’s “back to work” with blogging after a needed break, as well as time for a new food challenge:
Enter the Bitter Melon
For those not familiar with Asian ingredients, bitter melon is a vegetable related to cucumber, both of which are related to melons. The similarity to melons stops there. Not sweet. Not at all, hence the name BITTER melon. There are different varieties, and are a popular vegetable throughout India, China, and Southeast Asia. I became introduced to it after reading about Okinawa, as it is very popular there, and the main ingredient in their most common stir fry dish, chample, or champuru, which means “all mixed up.” While technically part of Japan, Okinawa’s position at an oceaninc crossroads means that Okinawan cuisine is a little different than mainland Japan. For instance, they borrowed the stir fry technique from China, and bitter melon, both of which are not common elsewhere in Japan. The Okinawans attribute all sorts of special powers to the bitter melon, but the most interesting one is its ability to regulate and lower blood sugar. Its effect is so powerful that bitter melon extract has since been marketed as a supplement. It is conceivable too that diabetics on medication might actually have to be careful. Like the nopales in a recent post, this ancient but unfamiliar vegetable might have a special benefit for modern Western health problems.
Enter the Champuru
The typical Okinawan stir fry is made from pork, tofu, egg, goya (bitter melon), and some other vegetables, depending on what’s on hand. It is often flavored with a miso-sake sauce, but the signature touch that makes it truly Okinawan is generous use of turmeric, which gives its characteristic yellow color. Turmeric itself is also popular in the research world for its health benefits, and its main ingredient, curcumin, is also marketed as a supplement. Perhaps the one-two punch of bitter melon and turmeric is part of the Okinawan success recipe? Since the traditional Okinawan diet is very low in animal protein, I imagine that this dish is often made vegan, which is how I did it.
So How Bitter is Bitter Melon?
The first bite left me with a serious pucker! I kept at it though, and with some practice, became accustomed to it. I will eat it again, and I understand now why it is popular. It kinda grows on you. However, this vegetable is only for those skilled and advanced enough to handle it. People who are not vegetable lovers or at least adventurous eaters should steer clear. It will not win over anyone to a healthier diet. It WILL frighten pets and small children, so be advised.
Bitter Melon, Okinawa Style
1 bitter melon, halved lengthwise, seeded and sliced
1 block tofu, cubed (see note)
3-4 C chopped stir fry vegetable of choice (carrot, celery, broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, etc)
2-3 t minced fresh ginger
1-2 cloves minced garlic
hot chili pepper, fresh or dried (optional)
sliced green onions and sesame seeds for garnish
1/4 C miso
1/4 C sake
1/2 C water
Make the sauce: Whisk together the miso, sake and water. You can make more by using the same proportions if you like.
Heat up a wok, and saute the veggies until cooked as you like. Remember to put in the harder, slower cooking veggies first, and gradually add the quicker cooking ones. Bitter melon cooks similar to bell pepper, and a little slower than zucchini. When the veggies are almost done, add the ginger, garlic and optional chili, cook for a minute, then add sauce, stirring to evenly coat the veggies. Add the tofu and toss gently to heat through. Serve over your favorite rice.
For the tofu, I used leftover tofu scramble, which more closely matches the egg in the original. Not knowing how strong the taste the bitter melon would be, I used a bag of frozen mixed vegetables that included carrots, corn, broccoli, and edamame, figuring the sweetness would help balance the bitter, or be the sole veggies if the bitter melon defeated me. I was not defeated, and I will be back for more.